Tuesday Night Club: Harlequins and Columbines

A Florentine toy theatre, memento of a recent visit, courtesy of two very kind friends

The Tuesday Night Bloggers  are an informal group of crime fiction fans and bloggers who choose a topic each month to discuss in posts on Tuesdays. 

Our theme for October is:Tuesday Night Bloggers Costume

Crime in Costume

- with a subhead of Masks and Masquerade.

Thanks to Bev for the usual great logo, and to Kate for yet again volunteering to collect the links – see them over at her Cross-Examining Crime blog.

Earlier in the month I looked at Fancy Dress Balls and Parties in crime fiction, and one of my last examples featured harlequin and columbine, which reminded me and many other readers of their prominence in the crime genre – see the comments below the blogpost for some fascinating contributions. So that’s this week’s theme.

The ur-text with regard to harlequins is surely the 1933

Murder Must Advertise by Dorothy L Sayers

Murder Must Advertise harlequin

The black-and-white harlequin… was climbing the statue-group in the centre of the pool – an elaborate affair of twined mermaids and dolphins, supporting a basin in which was crouched an amorino, blowing from a conch-shell a high spout of dancing water. Up and up went the slim chequered figure, dripping and glittering like a fantastic water-creature…
The black and white figure raised its arms above its fantastic head and stood poised… the slim body shot down through the spray, stuck the surface with scarcely a splash and slight through the water like a fish… The girl Dian ran forward and caught hold of the swimmer as he emerged.
‘Oh you’re marvellous, you’re marvellous!’ she clung to him, the water soaking into her draggled satin. ‘Take me home, Harlequin – I adore you!’

I said in my blogpost that Sayers seemed a lot more at home writing about the advertising agency than talking about the high-society riff-raff parties, and truly these are not the best parts of the book. “Lord Peter Wimsey in a onesie” as it was memorably described by my good friend Col of the Criminal Library – not a man who shares my love for DLS.

harlequin 4

Then there is also:

The Mysterious Mr Quin by Agatha Christie

Harlequin 3
- a 1930 collection of short stories featuring the unpindownable figure of Harley Quin. He appears and disappears, and helps the prissy Mr Satterthwaite solve crimes – usually connected with love. Looked at objectively, these stories are atmospheric but not her cleverest, and are often sentimental. They may well have been money-making fillers for her: I imagine they were easy to sell to magazines. But all that admitted,  I and many hardcore Christie fans have a soft spot for the stories, with their almost-supernatural hints and their settings in country houses and on the Riviera. And Christie did say herself that she liked the two main characters.

For the sake of completism: Mr Satterthwaite also appears in Three Act Tragedy, and there are a couple more Harley Quin stories not in this book, but easily tracked down in the later collections of Christie short fiction.

masquerade 1

Somewhat later – 1949 – comes

Death in Clairvoyance by Josephine Bell

As I explained in the blogpost on it:

By happy chance, I came across this book via a fellow member of the Tuesday Night Club, my blogging friend Helen Szamuely. A while back she bought a copy of the book and shared the cover in a Golden Age forum.Death in Clairvoyance
I loved the picture, I always love anything to do with
harlequins, and am very partial to a murder story dealing with the paranormal, so naturally I had to get hold of this book straightaway – on Kindle, so no lovely cover, but great news that the excellent Bello Books imprint has republished it as an ebook.

It has the most extraordinary setup: at a fancy-dress ball in a seaside hotel (this is just after the war, in England) there are six spare costumes available to guests who don’t have another outfit: they are identical clown/harlequin costumes. Mrs Hamilton, a psychic, has a premonitory vision that one clown kills another clown. She tries to prevent the crime – by racing round the hotel tracking down men in green and white – but fails. When a dead body is found, the police must discover which of the men in these costumes was the killer. Fortunately they are going to be helped by Bell’s regular sleuth, Dr David Wintringham, who happens to have been one of the green-and-white men…

It’s an enjoyable book, even though this reader quickly got tired of the initially enticing setup - it would be a hardened soul who kept track of the whereabouts of every one of the costumes and the suspects during the course of the evening.


Pierrots were the third main characters in the commedia dell'arte - and I looked at their role in British life in my entry on Angela Carter's Wise Children - here - illustrated by the picture above, which is one of my all-time favourite photos used on the blog.

It does seem that harlequin, columbine and pierrots were standard fancy dress costumes in the first two thirds of the 20th century  - they are nearly always mentioned in any fancy dress party of any novel of the era, not only in crime books. Nowadays I think the Harlequin costume would only be used for a Batman villain – a shame. We should re-introduce these iconic characters.

And then there are the splendid pictures: The top one is a beautiful toy theatre from my recent visit to Florence (Italy being where the commedia dell'arte originates), then there's Nijinsky playing harlequin. The harlequin and lady painting is, surprisingly, by Edward Hopper. The b/w photos of seaside entertainers and the Hamlet-esque clown are from the Northern Ireland record office.


  1. Great post. I hadn't come across the Bell book before. I got put off her work when I read The Trouble in Hunter Ward. I've been meaning to reread the Quin stories having read the suggestion that they are narratively more experimental than her more famous Poirot and Marple books.

    1. Oh that's interesting about the Quin storeies - I originally read them when I was too young to have any such thoughts, and I think that will always shade them from me. They do stick in my memory...
      I'm not a big fan of Josephine Bell, I seem to alternate between one that's pretty terrible, and one that's OK,and so I don't see them out - but read them if they appear or (as in this case) there's something attractive. I don't have any great recommendations!

  2. Those are great examples of the Harlequin, Moira! And what an interesting focus for the Tuesday Night Bloggers, too. I always rather liked Mr. Harley Quin; and I think Christie uses the harlequin theme in The Affair at the Victory Ball, too. Costumes are such useful tools for crime writers...

    1. Thanks Margot, and I think you're right about the Victory Ball - I just couldn't lay my hands on the book to include it, so thanks for adding it to the list!
      Yes, if I think an author is going for costumes I sigh with pleasure, knowing I'm going to enjoy it.

  3. Moira: Welcome back from Italy. I hope you had all the fun, food and wine you dreamed about before the trip.

    My favourite examples of costume in crime were in The Vanished Man by Jeffery Deaver. The evil Malerick escapes from the police repeatedly using illusions and lightning changes of clothing. He will layers of costumes so he can instantly change his appearance. He is a striking villain.

    1. I had a wonderful time thanks Bill!
      I've never read Jeffery Deaver, but this sounds right up my street - I'm off to look it up.

  4. Great post, Moira! The Bell book was the first one I ever owned by her. I quite liked the set up with the identical clowns...I was thinking about using it for my last post. I'll have to see if I can do something a little different with it or look for another idea.

    1. Well I only touched on it, and I for one would love to read a whole post. It is a very clever idea...

  5. As I mentioned when you blogged on the Josephine Bell book, I have been wanting to try something by Bell, but they don't show up much here. I guess I will have to seek her out if I ever want to sample her writing. A while back Glen suggested The Port of London Murders based on a review he read.

    1. I haven't read that one, and I don't have a strong recommendation for one of hers. I guess she didn't make it in the USA? Perhaps one will turn up - you should try her once!

  6. It's getting to the point where future generations are going to have to have the whole concept of the Harlequin and Columbine characters explained in the front of these books, and I do wonder whether there would be what recognition there is if Christie, Sayers and the others had not used the characters in their stories. A modern fancy dress costume would be far more likely to be some character from the media. Rather than going as a generic comedia le arte type character, when I went to a fancy dress party a few years back I went as Hercule Poirot!

    1. Oh that's a great idea. I think I might decide to dress up as Mrs Bradley from the Gladys Mitchell books, now I think about it. But the loss of harlequins and friends is a shame -opportunities there for everyone.


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